We Are All Immigrants
Several years ago I was privileged to be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor that pays tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic.
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
My grandparents all came here from Eastern Europe around the turn of last century.
Dad, who passed away eight years ago, was born in 1905 on the lower East Side. I knew his mom who spoke enough English to communicate with her grandchildren but used it infrequently with anyone else. I never knew my paternal grandfather.
Mom’s folks were younger and lived near us for most of my childhood. They were around the corner for quite a number of years. I was close with my maternal grandfather, who without a formal education always impressed me by helping with the most difficult math problems.
I never heard about the old country from any of my grandparents. Today, I wonder why they never spoke of it. Was life back in their home so unpleasant? Was the past just a bad memory to be forgotten? Were they so focused on the future that they blocked out the past?
Well, I never asked them. It was not until long after they were gone that I expressed any interest in my grandparents’ homeland and their life before America. But their children – dad and mom each being one of four – had little to offer about my ancestry. I spent a little time researching but got sidetracked. I encountered a half a dozen other Schenklers on the internet – adopting each as a distant, long-lost cousin. But they each knew as little as I about where the family name came from or how my family got here.
I remember discussing with dad where his parents came from. His story was inconsistent – or his memory or facts vague. “The borders kept changing,” he would say. “One year it was Poland, the next it was Russia.” For the scholar that he was, he really offered very little information about his parent’s roots. I have no idea how they got to their new home across the ocean.
Stately watching Ellis Island
I know when mom — at the age of 90 in Florida (the folks moved there from Queens some 35 years ago) — reads this, she will say I never asked, but I know just as little or less about the Katz family journey to America. Many of my first cousins read my column, I hope they will call or e-mail if they can shed light on Sam and Lena’s trip to the new land. Perhaps Aunt Janice and Uncle Nat would like to give it a try. But I can only guess.
I don’t believe they came through Ellis Island – I once tried to check. I never heard of any boat crossing the ocean stories. I just don’t know.
Like most kids, I believed my grandparents were remarkable people. They came here to a new country and built a wonderful life for their children and grandchildren. It is their daring, sweat and courage that paved the path of opportunity that I was lucky enough to walk on through my life. My children also have the incredible advantage of continuing to climb the ladder of a successful life which rests on my grandparents’ shoulders. They were our foundation. Like many Americans, we are grateful for what they and their generation built for us.
My in-laws came here from the German concentration camps after the Second World War. My late father-in-law once told me of his tortured past and terrible trip here. Peter and Phyllis Prosaw got here more than 50 years after my family – a generation later they came and they started paving a new path for their families. They toiled the fields of New York and planted the seeds that would yield for their children and grandchildren the same fields of opportunity that prior new Americans had tilled before them.
The story is the same no matter where they are from, and the story continues today.
People cross the great divide to arrive at the land of opportunity to build a better life for themselves, their family and those to come. Charles and Rebecca Schenkler did; Sam and Lena Katz did; and Peter and Phyllis Prosaw did.
Greeted by the honor guard, the medal ceremony was filled with pomp and pageantry.
So did your ancestors. Mine were from Eastern Europe. But others came from everywhere — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America — they came to America to build a new life.
And many settled in Queens.
It doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter where, the story is the same. The color of the skin, the language which they spoke, the religion which they practiced – or didn’t – made no difference. They were here for the future. They were the new Americans. They came before my family – and they were brave. They came in droves as the 19th century became the 20th, when my family came. They increased in number as Europe was torn by World Wars. And as the world grew smaller in the past 50 years, new areas of the global community started the migration to America.
Freedom, opportunity, and a future for their families attracted and continue to attract new Americans.
A couple of weeks ago, as we were exploring illegal immigrants in Queens, I sat down to chat with my art director, a Guyanese born Muslim American. He has been part of our staff for over a decade. I remember the pride we all took when 2 years ago he got his citizenship. His grandfather and uncles came here years before and had sponsored his family, giving him the opportunity to become an American.
I asked him about the legal status of his Southeast Asian community in Richmond Hill. We had occasionally talked about cricket and he referred to his teammates – a group of a little less than 20 foreign-born Queens residents most with Southeast Asian roots — I assumed many were from Guyana.
Medal recipient Mike Wallace arriving by boat.
“Maybe two of us are here legally,” he said smiling. “You wouldn’t believe the number of regular Queens people who are here with illegal papers,” he continued.
Passports are used over and over again with pictures changed. Documents are easily forged with today’s computer technology. You can buy whatever papers you want. The vulnerable border of Queens is not a stretch along Mexico, but our airports. In generations past, it was the ports. And today for $12,000 to $15,000 a person can buy entry.
But how have these “illegals” impacted our nation. What is their role in the vibrant community known as Queens today?
To some of us, the answer is pretty clear.
No one has ever asked me to prove I was a citizen or here legally. I never heard of any of my grandparents being asked either. This society – this wonderful society – in which we live, was built by immigrants who came to this land in search of freedom and opportunity. In order to build a better life, they wove the fine cloth that is the fabric of our society.
The American dream is shared by those here with or without legal status. It is not a visa, passport or document that gives someone character or makes someone a better contributor to society.
With fellow medal recipient Russ Hotzler, former Queens College and York President.
Yes, we must make sure our nation and streets are safe. But the bad guys are not necessarily those who would buy their chance to find the American dream.
The cricket team in Richmond Hill presents no threats. The gardeners who trim my bushes need not show me their papers. The hundreds who serve me in restaurants do so with skill and grace and make my time and life better. The Trib art department, sales department, editorial staff – are filled with names and faces that weren’t part of the Queens in which I was raised. They contribute to this paper, our society and are the story of our borough and our nation. The scientists, nurses, technicians, whatever – with or without “legal status”— build our America.
As an employer, I am required to ask for some basic paperwork to make sure employees are eligible to work in our country. One delightful staffer even had to take a “sabbatical” and return to India in order to “correct” her legal status. I wouldn’t want to lose her as a worker and this nation wouldn’t want to lose her as a wonderful part of our society.
My grandparents and my in-laws didn’t come through Ellis Island and I never saw their papers. My father-in-law was certainly motivated and creative enough to “buy” his way into this country – although I don’t think that happened.
My past is paved by family who came to this nation in search of a better life and no one really asked their status. Our nation is built by great Americans whose families were born elsewhere. Their hearts and souls and intellect – not their paperwork – were the embodiment of the American dream.
Yes we must protect our country. But the quality of our nation is not dependent upon tracking down the young lady with an accent who served me dinner last night.
God bless America.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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